I've been working on making a relaxation meditation CD this summer. It has been an exercise in patience, and computer software skills, but I feel like I am finally getting somewhere with it! I hope to reveal some of it on my website this summer or early fall....
One of the tracks I am recording is a "lovingkindness" meditation, which I teach in Yoga for Grief Support, to cultivate compassion for ourselves and for others. This morning, I was reading up on compassion, and kindness, and came across this wonderful quote. I love that included in the definition of compassion is sadness. I know, in my own personal experience, there is a definite link between sorrow and compassion - one that I have actually grown to appreciate. It's this intertwining of two seemingly paradoxical emotions that reminds me not only of the amount of suffering in this world, but also the amount of love.
The quote is from A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield, and it is a quote by Chogyam Trungpa:
"When you awaken your heart, you find to your surprise that your heart is empty. You find that you are looking into outer space. What are you, who are you, where is your heart? If you really look, you won't find anything tangible or solid...If you search for the awakened heart, if you put your hand through your rib cage and feel for it, there is nothing there but tenderness. You feel sore and soft, and if you open your eyes to the rest of the world, you feel tremendous sadness. This sadness doesn't come from being mistreated. You don't feel sad because someone has insulted you or because you feel impoverished. Rather, this experience of sadness is unconditioned. It occurs because your heart is completely open, exposed. It is the pure raw heart. Even if a mosquito lands on it, you feel so touched...It is the tender heart of a warrior that has the power to heal the world."
Chogyam Trungpa calls this the 'spiritual warrior's tender heart of sadness'...which I think is a beautiful description of the love, rawness and courage it takes to live with loss and grief.
From one warrior to many warriors,
I am always open to receiving feedback from students who participate in my yoga for grief classes, as to what they found beneficial, and what things they “took home” from yoga class that have helped them live with grief.
One of the most obvious, yet most surprising, was when people told me that what they found most beneficial about the class was that it provided them with a tool they could do for themselves.
I’ve always known yoga’s power to be empowering, but to state is as “something I can do for myself,” seems somehow different….more simple, more profound, and more accessible.
Early on in my personal journey through grief, I would seek a lot of answers to my questions from sources outside myself. I wondered what everyone else believe happened after someone died before I decided on my own belief. I went to a couple of different counselors looking for answers and solutions to my grief, hoping to be told – “you just need to do ______,” as if I was doing something wrong and needed someone to tell me how to “do” it differently. Ironically, these counselors told me that what I was experiencing was normal as far as grief goes. It took a long time for me to realize that if I just listened deeply to myself, and trusted myself, I could find the answers in myself and for myself.
Henri Nouwen says, “Do not run, but be quiet and silent. Listen attentively to your own struggle. The answer to your question is hidden in your own heart.”
Even though I didn’t describe it as verbally eloquently as some of my students have, yoga gave me tools that I could use myself, for myself, whenever I needed it. I didn’t have to wait two weeks for an appointment, I could just meet myself exactly where I was in each moment and practice taking care of ME in a yogic way: I could take a deep breaths whenever I needed to. I could focus my mind on the subtle sound of ujjayi breathing during stressful situations when I thought I would “lose it.” I could rest in child’s pose when I was feeling vulnerable and fatigued. I could watch my mind react to my experiences and see myself from a non-judgmental and compassionate viewpoint.
Yoga gave me the space to be quiet and silent…to listen attentively to my own struggle…what a gift.
I suppose yoga changed my relationship with my grief. From something that needed to be conquered and something that I thought others would have the answers for, to something that was the deepest and truest part of me, that held the answers in it’s own silent, painful way. And, what yoga taught me was to surrender to my grief and my experience as my most sincere, authentic, honorable teacher on my journey.
In Yoga as Medicine by Timothy McCall, he writes: Yoga “encourages involvement in your own healing. In much of conventional medicine patients are passive recipients of care. In yoga, the essential element is not what is done to you but what you do for yourself. Yoga gives people something tangible they can do and most people start to feel better the very first time they try it. They also observe that the more they commit to the practice, the greater the benefits tend to be. This not only involves them in their own care, it gives them the message that there is hope, and hope itself can be healing – and self-perpetuating. If you believe that yoga really can help you, you are much more likely to practice everyday. And if you do that, it is much more likely to work (and not just because of the placebo effect).”
This awareness includes noticing what arises in the moment physcially, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And, just to be clear, it doesn't have to feel "good." I think there is a misconception that if you are practicing present moment awareness, or mindfulness, you should always feel peaceful, calm, encouraged and inspired. I've heard yoga students say, "I couldn't stay present because I was having too many emotions and memories." Yet, this IS being present. Noticing what is coming up for you in-the-moment is what it is all about - the good, the bad and the ugly.
The truth is that acute grief can create a host of memories, volatile emotions, anxieties and fears about the past and the future that shake up, cloud and disorder the present moment. Healing grief necessitates moving to the heart of this myriad of experiences. So how can you use the past to work with memories and trauma around the death of your loved one, continue to remember them, recognize uncertainties of the future, and synchronistically work with the present moment?
Remember, the present moment is made up of the past
"The past is in the past," or "put the past behind you" are messages that we have all heard, that have the good intention of helping us to be relieved of our pain, but in actuality, the opposite is true. The past is still alive within us, and is in the form of the present. When it comes to healing grief, it is essential to recognize the depth and breadth of your pain, which involves moving backwards into the past. Remembering your loved one(s), their life (and impact on yours), remembering and working through the circumstances of their death, and even remembering and mourning your life and how it may have changed since the death. Saying hello to all these things comes before saying goodbye.
Integrating these things with the present moment involves noticing when they arise. For example, if you are in yoga class, and you become overcome with emotion related to a memory of your loved one, staying in the present moment means staying with the emotion that arises and letting it surface, peak, and dissipate, allowing it to move through you. In this scenario, you would recognize the memory, and the emotion it evokes, and the work of staying in the present moment means taking care of the emotion and embracing it's presence, noticing how the mind gets drawn to the past, and how this past is creating your present. You work with your past in the present. Instead of running from the past and our pain we confront it and hold it as it effects our present.
Remember, the present moment has elements of the future
After the death of a loved one, your future can feel uncertain. Recognizing this and surrendering to this can be a difficult task, but if you can recognize that the cumulation of present moments will create the future the task becomes less daunting. Take care of the present moment and the future will be taken care of. Integrating the future into the present moment can be done by making conscious choices around how your want to Be in each moment. I've written about this is a previous blog post about creating and using intention. As Matthieu Ricard says, "tend to the moment; the hours, days and years will tend to themselves."
Care for your pain (embrace your suffering)
Staying present with your pain (as it arises from the past or future, in the present) allows you to deeply care for yourself. By noticing what is your truth in each moment, you can make a choice to come back to yourself (instead of running from it) and embrace your pain. This is the path to healing, self compassion, and honouring your self and your loved one. Thich Nhat Hanh recommends using the energy of mindfulness to take care of your pain by saying to it, "My suffering and my pain, I am here for you." With this care, the pain has a chance to transform from an object of suffering to an object of compassion.
Use the present moment to do the hard work of mourning
The hard work of mourning involves 6 needs as outlined by Alan Wolfelt which include: acknowledging the reality of the death, embracing the pain of the loss, remembering the person who died, developing a new self-identity, search for meaning, and receive ongoing support from others. As you can see, simply by reading these needs, they are comprised of the past (eg. remembering your loved one) and future (eg. develop new self identity). The present moment doesn't exist in isolation, nor does our grief. We would be doing ourselves a dis-service if we were to focus on ONLY the present moment as we heal. We can learn to work skillfully with our past and our future, all within the present moment. Perhaps by noticing what is your truth in the present moment, you will realize that you have to address something from the past, or spend some time remembering your loved one. In this way, our self awareness guides us on our journey - which may meander through the past, or jump to the future. Either way, being on the journey, creates the journey.
Simply, the present moment has elements of the past as well as the future, both of which are essential to be explored and nurtured as we journey through grief.
If your present moment involves a memory that sneaks out your eye and rolls down your cheek, understand that this memory is a gift from the past for the present.
I recently joined an online forum/support group for people who are grieving. I am blown away by the support offered by strangers from around the world. I suppose, grief and bereavement create this sort of sub-culture or club, that no one really wants to be a part of. Yet, here we are.
As I read posts from people who are struggling with their changed lives, I am brought back to how grief has touched my life, and how hard it was in the intensity of loss, to believe in my experience. Believe in my experience…believe that whatever I was feeling was OK – after 3 weeks, 3 months, 3 years or 30.
I suppose it’s hindsight that has given me the strength to believe in my experience. Looking back, and even reading back (I kept meticulous journals during those early years), I see that my experience had an underlying core of “Sandy truths,” and much of my suffering was brought on by beliefs that were put in my head about how I was “doing it wrong,” or “should be____” or “could be ____.” All of this created dissonance within myself about what I was experiencing.
Shouldn’t my own experience be my own truth? No one knows my life, or my loss the way I do – it is full of intimate details that only I will ever know or appreciate.
Our own lives are the instrument with which
we experiment with truth. – Thich Nhat Hanh
This post reminds me of the one I wrote previously on Authenticity. I suppose, part of authenticity comes from experimenting with what we believe is our truths: What fits with our experience? what brings us a sense of peace? what creates more suffering? We will find things that resonate positively and negatively, and from this searching we develop our tried, tested, and true truths.
Our lives, and our losses change us. Despite this huge change in life as we know it, is it possible to trust in our experience – even if our experience is misery? And trust that we can be suffering and that is Ok – in fact, that is something we can believe in? Can we find guidance in our suffering?
I believe the answer is yes -because I believe there is wisdom in suffering, and even more wisdom in our own life experiences. In this way, we accept all parts of ourselves – without judgement.
I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity; the influence of grief on our ability to be authentic, as well as the ability to mourn authentically.
[As aside....Grief is our internal response to loss - all the thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and physiological responses we experience. Mourning is our ability to bring our grief outside ourselves, and share the impact of our loss with the world. Grief-gone-public, so-to-speak. To heal, one must mourn. Without mourning, grief stays locked within us, and as I like to say, "what we resist, persists." Mourning creates movement within us - and movement creates the transformation of our suffering. Mourning includes things like talking about your loss and your loved one, embracing your pain, remembering your loved one, searching for meaning etc. A great article on the needs of mourning can be found here: Mourner's 6 Reconciliation Needs]
My concern with authenticity in grief, comes from the fact and observation that we (as a society) don’t DO grief well. In my opinion, we have a real aversion to difficult emotions. Grief isn’t something that is openly talked about or even considered normal past an arbitrary end point. People are given 3 days off work – just enough time to have a funeral, and life is expected to get back to normal within that time, or shortly thereafter. Movies and TV shows about loss and grief portray grief as being completely resolved in an unrealistic amount of time (30-90 minutes depending on the show), never to be thought of again. In fact, we, in North America, have theworldwide shortest mourning times. These socio-cultural influences have charred our presepectives of what is actually normal in grief. As a society, we should be ashamed that we don’t offer more support to grief and heartbreak – and treat it as a testament to love and life – instead we see it as a “problem” that needs to be solved ASAP.
These timelines, endpoints and expectations can be detrimental to someone’s experience of authenticity in grief and mourning. The moment the perception becomes, “I should be feeling different than I am now,” it is a slippery slope to being secondary victimized – where we blame and shame the already-torn-apart-griever because they are “doing it wrong.” This infuriates me.
In order to grieve and mourn authentically, we are required to break the social norms of our culture. It is unfortunate that the struggle of living outside the norms of our society is added to our already-overwhelmed grieving selves. Alas, I think it’s vital.
I mean, really, our ability to grieve is directly linked to our ability to love. If we didn’t love, we would’t grieve. That alone speaks to deep connection and bond between two souls that shouldn’t be severed and disregarded due to death. Death may end a life, but it doesn’t end a relationship – albeit a changed relationship, but still one that can be honoured, and remembered, and talked about…with NO timelines and endpoints. Isn’t that what love is?
Coco Chanel said, “Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity.” That quote resonates with me. When something so significant in your life happens to rock you to the core, it sparks a need to shout, “this is what happened to me!” To tell your story to listening ears and compassionate hearts, and be heard for how your precious life has changed in a way that makes you want to stand up and say “this is my truth, this is me” both as a statement of fact, and as a method of searching for a new transformed way of being in the world.
I don’t want to generalize and say that this is the truth for everyone who is grieving, nor is it true for everyone in our society. As a public service announcement, I think it is important to create awareness around the NEED for authenticity – then the work becomes finding people/places/things that allow you to be completely authentic in your experience.
Journaling has always been an excerise in authenticity for me. I have practiced allowing myself to journal in a completely uncensored way – how freeing!
Yoga and meditation are also places where I can be and feel authentic. Both practices allow me to fully experience my life, and not be brought out of my expereience, or have it be changed by an outside influence. In hindsight, when I was in the throngs of grief, yoga, meditation and journaling were some of the only places that I felt like whatever I was feeling or thinking was OK. And, when I didn’t feel like my thoughts and feelings were ok, these activities gave me a place to explore WHY my perception of my own personal experience was broken…and more often than not I realized that I felt like my experience was somehow wrong or abnormal.
Authentic living this isn’t an easy path to walk – it’s not always realistic or emotionally safe to be authentic. That is why we also have to practice discernment and self awareness along with our need to live truthfully.
Ironically, I’ve found it’s more painful to run, repress and hide from my truth, than it has been to stand in it. At least with the latter option I felt legitimate and valid and faithful to honouring my life and my story. In the same way, I also honour the lives of the loved ones in my life who have died and who’s lives have changed my own.
I would love to open this up for discussion – what/where/how do you feel authentic?